Of all the various animal proteins, chicken is perhaps the least complicated to cook. Sure, there are chicken-centric recipes that can benefit greatly from the skills of a professional chef. But compared to the intricate cooking times of, say, red meat, or the often-delicate nature of fish and seafood, cooking chicken is a technique home cooks of all levels can easily master. That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t some secrets to make the process easier — and the chicken, tastier — that everyone can benefit from learning.
Here, we offer some do’s and don’ts to create the perfect bird.
1. If you’re short on time, boneless chicken breasts cook quickly and offer up a great canvas for seasonings…
2. …but breasts can also dry-out easily, and they become tough when overcooked. Quick-cooking methods such as pan-frying, grilling, broiling, sautéing and stir-frying can help prevent the meat from becoming dry.
3. When it comes to quick-cooking methods (see No. 2), do limit your flipping. Once (or twice, tops) will allow the breasts to cook while also providing that oh-so-desirable sear.
4. To help cook the meat quickly and evenly, use a meat mallet or rolling pin to pound the raw chicken breasts between sheets of plastic wrap or waxed paper, creating a uniform thickness.
5. Even if you aren’t a skin-eater, keep the skin on while grilling and broiling to prevent meat from drying out.
6. If you plan on stir-frying or sautéing the breasts, cut them across the grain to prevent meat from shrinking, shriveling and becoming tough.
7. Or, perhaps you plan on adding your breast pieces to a soup or stew? Keep a close eye on the time and be sure to simmer very gently. An intense boil can toughen the meat quickly.
8. Poaching is another option to ensure your chicken breasts won’t dry out. The key to this moist-heat cooking method is to keep the cooking liquid — use broth instead of water for added flavor — at a very gentle simmer.
9. While boneless chicken breasts get a lot of love, that doesn’t mean their dark-meat neighbors should be ignored. Drumsticks, wings and thighs (with or without the bone) bring a rich meaty flavor along with a level of juiciness not often found in breasts.
10. When it comes pan cooking — and this goes not only for chicken, but vegetables and other meats, too — overcrowding the pan is a big no-no. Unless, that is, you want a soggy end result (and you really don’t). Limit what you put in the pan to prevent the items from steaming instead of searing.
11. For the most part, recipe cook times aren’t written in stone as there are many variables at play. And while juices that run clear when you cut into the meat offer a good sign of doneness, that isn’t the gospel either. Temperature is the safest indicator of doneness — an internal temp of 165°F in the thickest part (don’t touch the bone!) to be exact. In other words: Keep your thermometer handy.
12. And speaking of temperature, to get a proper sear on your chicken — be it breasts, thighs, wings or drumsticks — it’s necessary to use high heat, which means olive oil’s low smoking point just won’t cut it. Instead use coconut, safflower or sunflower oils.
13. Cooking a whole bird? Be sure to cook with adequate heat. Hot and fast is usually the best way to go as it promotes even cooking and browning.
14. Another whole bird tip: Coat the skin with oil or butter before roasting. Doing so promotes that coveted golden appearance and delicious crispy skin.
15. And while your home will inevitably smell delicious from that bird roasting in your oven, resist the urge to dive in immediately after taking it out. Let it rest 10 to 15 minutes before carving for best results.